Surprise: Gates, Sulzberger Unveil New Web/Print ‘Reader’

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Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates told a ballroom full of newspaper editors Friday he’s developing “onscreen reader” software that will make reading news digitally a lot more like flipping through a paper.

It was a well-timed pitch, capping the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ annual meeting, much of which focused on winning back the growing number of people who no longer subscribe to newspapers.

Gates brought Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., chairman of The New York Times Co. and publisher of the company’s flagship paper, on stage to spill a few details about a service Microsoft and the Times aim to unveil early next year.

“We are trying to make a product, a news experience, that more fully engages our readers, that allows them to want to spend more time with us,” Sulzberger said.

“We must be platform agnostic,” he added. “We must follow readers where they want to be.”

Gates said stories and pictures will look much like pages of a newspaper when loaded onto onscreen readers. Instead of scrolling down the length of a page, users would be able to flip from one page to another – say, with the tap of a stylus or the push of a button on the side of a tablet PC.

Tom Bodkin, assistant managing editor and design director at the New York Times, showed off a prototype, demonstrating how it reflows type and images to fit whatever screen they’re on – whether a portable device or a desktop. The stories were in newspaper-like columns, on some pages with interactive ads in the corner of the screen.

“It melds the high impact of print with the interactivity of the Web,” Bodkin said.

Computers with onscreen reading software will not need to be hooked up to a live Internet connection to work. Once users download the content, they’ll be able to flip through the newspaper digitally wherever they take it, Gates said.

Users will be able to do things like scroll through every photo appearing in a given edition, or highlight text and take notes within stories. Sulzberger said Microsoft and the Times are working on a way to have the onscreen reader tell the newspaper how many of its stories get read by each user day by day.

The Times Reader, as Sulzberger called it, will run on Windows Vista, the next version of Microsoft’s operating system due out in January. Gates said users who don’t have Vista on their machines will be able to download software to make the onscreen reader work.

By the end of summer, Gates said Microsoft will make developer kits available to other newspapers and magazines that want to work up their own onscreen reader editions.

Asked how much such a service would cost compared to a subscription to the New York Times, Gates turned to Sulzberger and asked him to remind him how much a Times subscription costs these days.

“If you have to ask, you can’t afford it,” Sulzberger quipped. After the laughs died down, he said it’s expected to be more expensive than a year’s subscription.

Daily and Sunday home delivery of the Times in Manhattan is $504.40 a year. Delivery to Gates’ home in the Seattle suburb of Medina would be $618.50.

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